An itch he just had to scratch

What tempted Oscar-winning Michael Radford to make his directorial début in the West End with The Seven Year Itch? It could only be Daryl Hannah
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The Independent Culture

Those of you who absently pricked a finger on a spinning wheel and have just woken up after 100 years will have no idea that British theatre talent has recently been making it big in pictures. Everyone else knows that Anthony Minghella, Nicholas Hytner, Sam Mendes and now Stephen Daldry have made such an impact that they've even become names outside the industry.

Those of you who absently pricked a finger on a spinning wheel and have just woken up after 100 years will have no idea that British theatre talent has recently been making it big in pictures. Everyone else knows that Anthony Minghella, Nicholas Hytner, Sam Mendes and now Stephen Daldry have made such an impact that they've even become names outside the industry.

The track from stage to screen is, however, more firmly trampled than most current commentators would have you believe. Indeed, before the ascendancy of TV and video, theatre was cinema's entry point for the likes of Elia Kazan, Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman. The reverse journey - quitting cinema for the currently derided pleasures of theatre - is far rarer. After all, unless you're after the millionaire option of a profit percentage from staging a blockbuster musical, what does theatre offer? Step forward Oscar-nominated Michael Radford.

The British director of Il Postino, 1984 and White Mischief certainly isn't in it for the money. OK, he's making his stage directorial début with a revival of George Axelrod's Fifties Broadway comedy The Seven Year Itch - most famous for its tamer film incarnation - but a 10-week run isn't going to make him rich. What it might do is give him clout due to the big or, rather, tall casting of the female lead, Daryl Hannah. In fact, it's thanks to her that he's here in the first place.

She's in Radford's most recent film, Dancing at the Blue Iguana and although it ended up - after seven months' improvisation in a theatre in LA - as a dark film about strippers, it started out as comedy about a mugged, passportless Russian theatre director who finds himself in a rickety strip club where he's mistaken for a gangster because he's constantly trying to direct Uncle Vanya at the Moscow Arts Theatre by phone.

Cut to the present and Radford is in less disreputable surroundings - a typically tiny Shaftesbury Avenue dressing room - but his friendly welcome is fringed with worry. He began his professional life acting at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre but abandoned everything for film-making. His return was prompted by his discovery of Hannah's talent for comedy improvisation, but it's a gamble as she's never done a play before.

Mercifully, everyone has survived the first preview. The audience laughed and loved Hannah. But Radford knows he has his work cut out. After a scant three and a half weeks' rehearsal he has one week left in which to tighten his show. It's like a film director watching a rough cut and knowing the delivery date for the final cut is just seven days away.

He's convinced of the similarities between film and theatre. "You have to think about the same things: how can I get a performance out of this actor, what is the meaning of what he's doing, how can I help him and so on." Yet he's under no illusions about differences between the forms. "As Peter Brook says, an actor can walk out on to a stage and say 'Here in Russia...' and in that empty space it becomes Russia. In cinema, the exterior world is more concrete but you can show the interior by just closing in on a person's eyes. Dirk Bogarde once told me that he based his entire career on being able to de-focus his eyes."

In film, the director harnesses actors to a constantly evolving screenplay - and then rewrites everything in the editing suite. In the theatre though, not only does the text already exist, there's also no camera to direct the audience's eye and no cutting to cradle and enhance performances. Theatre directors need to give actors staging posts, the structure on which they can build and hang nightly performances that create and sustain dramatic energy.

Radford's confidence rests on his belief that whatever the form, the goal is the same. "At the risk of sounding pompous, nothing is more difficult than directing a movie. Yet nothing is more easy. If you have a good script and a competent director of photography and a good editor you can get away with murder... But if you want to bring that extra 2 or 3 per cent to a film you have to have a real sense of drama. When it works it's dramatic, no matter which medium you're in."

In his defence, Dancing at the Blue Iguana is not Radford's only theatrically-tinged movie. On Il Postino, he couldn't fine-tune by shooting multiple takes because his leading actor Massimo Troisi was terminally ill. That meant synchronising lights, the crane, the camera and the camera movement for single takes. His trademark contemplative rhythm was established on his feature début, the carefully composed, unhurried Another Time, Another Place. In deliberately long takes, he holds on Phyllis Logan's beautifully lit face or creates virtual still-life wide shots of prisoners of war working the land. It's as if he's trying to slow the audience's pulse-rate, leading them to watch and think rather than just reacting to the friction of high energy and rhythmic edits.

His own preference for drama within the frame doesn't always pay off. His colonial picture White Mischief was never intended to be what the French call "the cinema of waxed furniture", but it sank like a stone and Radford couldn't get arrested for six years.

He's smart enough to recognise this was partly his own fault. He grew up in an era that thought anything with subtitles was art and anything American wasn't. "I wanted to make French movies, to be Fellini... In 1984 I made 1984 and I was shit hot and I should have bitten the bullet and taken the big Hollywood Dino de Laurentiis movie I was offered. Not every movie you make is going to be a masterpiece." He cites Bergman who made seven masterpieces but 60 movies. "Have you ever seen And Now About These Women? Don't."

He believes the auteur theory did and does serious damage. "Whether or not you're an artist is for others to say, you should just get on and do your job which is to make pictures or plays or whatever. I should have done more. And I will."

 

'The Seven Year Itch' is at Queen's Theatre, London W1 (020-7494 5550)

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